Why Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month Is Important for Sociocultural Competence

One of the three pillars of Dual Language Education is sociocultural competence. Sociocultural competence involves being able to fight for injustices and work across the aisle with those whose identities are different than one’s own. For this reason, regardless of the language we are teaching, it is important that we incorporate Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month into our teaching. However, AAPI Heritage  Month is one of the most ignored heritage months, largely due to the Model Minority Myth, a fallacy that states that Asians, by virtue of their own bootstrapping behavior and work ethics, have broken the structural barriers of racism. This myth successfully creates a wedge among Asian Americans and other minoritized groups. Victim blaming occurs because other minoritized groups such as African Americans and Hispanics are erroneously thought to not work as hard as the model minority. Furthermore, it prohibits us, as a society, from addressing the inequities that Asian Americans continue to face. In this article, we will broadly examine some of the inequities that Asian Americans encounter and then consider what we, as educators, can do to bring AAPI Heritage Month into our classrooms in May.

Among the greatest of the fallacies within the Model Minority Myth is that all Asians are at the top of the income ladder.  While it is true that Asian Americans as a whole have an average household income of $78,000 a year, more than $10,000 more than the average national household income, a deep dive into the the incomes of various Asian ethnic groups reveals that Asian Americans have the largest income disparity among all racial groups. Those earning at the top 10% make more than ten times as much as those at the bottom 10%. More specifically, Indo-Americans (those who can trace their ancestry to India) have a median household income of $127,000 a year whereas Burmese Americans, who have the lowest median household income, earn only $46,000 a year, significantly less than the average national income. If we do not consider the barriers specific Asian ethnicities face when trying to overcome poverty, we can perpetuate these same barriers.

While the Model Minority Myth declares Asians to be successful by virtue of their higher median income, the Model Minority Myth also completely glosses over the underrepresentation of Asians in corporate and government leadership roles. Asian Americans are overall thought of as smart but unassertive and timid, creating Americans to accept Asian Americans as highly salaried doctors, professors, and peers but not as bosses or leaders. For instance, although Asian Americans represent 25% of the workforce in Fortune 500 companies, they represent less than 2% of those who hold executive positions.  Similarly, Asian Americans represent only 3% of leadership positions in private companies, media, and the government in spite of making up 7% of the US population. In fact, after accounting for the fact that Asian Americans make up less than 10% of the US population, Asian Americans are still the least represented racial group in American government, followed by Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans.    

Further, Asian Americans continue to be targets for hate crimes. In fact, out of all racial groups, Asian Americans (32%) are most likely to express fear over being physically attacked, followed by Blacks (21%), Hispanics (16%), and Whites (8%) respectively. Since the start of the pandemic, Asian Americans (27%) have experienced racial slurs at the statistically same rate as African Americans (24%), and at higher rates than Hispanics (19%) and Whites (9%). Even before the pandemic, 76% of Asian Americans report that they have been subject to discrimination due to race.  

Hence, just as we do for Hispanic Heritage Month and African American History Month, we must also honor Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in our classroom. Here are a few ways we can do that.

Ideas to Honor Asian Americans in Your Classroom

  1. Asian Americans Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have been part of the American landscape since the 1800s. Teach students about the role Asian Americans have had in the fight for Civil Rights.   
  2. Do not make AAPI history seem like it is only fraught with struggles. Teach about successful Asian American leaders such as Vice President Kamala Harris and Former Governor George Ariyoshi, successful Asian American inventors such as Peter Tsai who invented the pandemic staple, N95, and successful Asian American sports stars such as baseball star Ichiro Suzuki and basketball star Yao Ming.  
  3. Explore Asian American art, especially art where artists explore their identities. After discussing the art, have students explore their own identities through their own creations. Help them examine how the art they have just explored inspired them. What do they have in common with the AAPI artists? What do they find to be different?
  4. Talk about why AAPI Month tends to be ignored. Are there any obstacles that schools face when it comes to honoring Asian Americans in May? How can schools reasonably work around these obstacles? Consider having students write persuasive essays to their administration about why their school should celebrate AAPI Month, and invite them to suggest creative ways that the school community can celebrate AAPI Month.
  5. Invite AAPI guests to speak to your students. While nobody should be expected to represent the entire community, getting to know prominent, AAPI individuals in the community helps break down intercultural barriers, especially if there are not any AAPI students in your classroom.

As Dual Language educators, we need to ensure that we are covering the third pillar of Dual Language Education, sociocultural competence. Teaching only about the cultures associated with the Language Other Than English (LOTE) cannot accomplish this goal. We need to work at helping students learn how to work with people from all cultures and how to advocate for all groups of people – only then are we fully accomplishing our task as educators. Celebrating and honoring AAPI Heritage Month in your classroom is a great avenue to do this work.

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is an accomplished, multilingual educator and social justice activist. She is the proud owner of Social Justice and Education. She is currently the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools, Adjunct Professor of Intercultural Communications at Eastern Connecticut State University, and President of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education. She has extensive experience writing grants for language acquisition programs. She is also an experienced advocate for Dual Language Education and World Languages, having been invited recently to speak at institutions such as Harvard University and the National Association of Bilingual Education. You can learn more about her and her work at www.socialjusticeandeducation.org.

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